By Randall Grayson, PhD.

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Camps vary in the degree to which they program various aspects of the day. At one extreme, there are camps that let the children freely wander around camp most of the day, where activities are open all the time on a drop-in basis. At the other extreme, campers are slotted from the moment they open their eyes until they close them again. In either case, the time right before children at resident camp go to sleep often isn’t something that is given much thought.

Counselors sometimes tell stories, just talk, or let the kids mill around until a lights out warning is called. Before hand, the kids will brush their teeth and do other bed preparation activities. In my experience, this “period” sometimes goes well, and sometimes it is a missed opportunity.

Certainly, campers need time to just be kids with each other. Some evenings of that are great, but the children likely get that opportunity much of the day already. At night, the cabin group has the opportunity to take the time and make it something extra special and magical. Counselors sometimes do that already, but others don’t realize the potential, or don’t have the ideas and experience to do something. Creating a resource (knowledge management binder – see that resource) will give staff ideas and inspiration.

Variety can be the spice of the night, especially if the children stay for a long period of time. To start off with a few ideas, some rough examples are included below. Your philosophy is an excellent guide for thinking of other activities. Staff will generate a lot of ideas -- a brainstorming session during orientation is always fruitful, as is sharing ideas at weekly staff meetings. Over time, the binder will be overflowing with great, inspiring ideas that will reap dividends well into the future. To start you off, here’s a sample philosophy with about five pages of ideas that follow.

Evening Embers
(Seriously, they can be more fun than Playstation!)


Evening Embers are one of the things that can be the difference between having a good cabin or having a great cabin. Since we want all our cabins to be great, it’s important to know how to lead a evening embers. To break down the basics of cabin chatting, we’ll use the five W’s of journalism.

Who—Just you and your cabin. No one from another cabin should be around, because things may be said that aren’t anyone else’s business. The unit directors, behavior specialist, and directors will likely sit in on a few of your cabin chats. Unit directors should be there frequently. If you tell your cabin that these people are special, honored guests, their presence is quite positive.

What—You can talk about just about anything. Make sure your topic is appropriate for camp, your age group, and your individual cabin. A couple of suggestions include topics that you know your campers want to discuss or that they may need to work on as a group (DON’T single out individuals).

When—Any time of day is a good time for an evening ember. This isn’t just a before bed activity. If you finish an activity with your cabin, you can sit down and have a chat immediately (examples—when your children climb, go caving, etc.).

Where—Anywhere. Just make sure that your setting is private enough to prevent eavesdropping or distractions. This can be in the cabin, in the woods, by Alpine Tower, etc. Different locations can make it more special and memorable.

Why—They serve several important functions. First of all, they provide an opportunity for your campers to express their feelings in a group setting. Also, they provide an opportunity to discuss topics about which children may have strong feelings or questions, but are afraid to ask about or discuss. Children will understand their own emotions and feelings better if they hear different points of view on topics. During evening embers, children have the opportunity to help each other cope with and understand feelings. Finally, they allow you to get to know your campers more personally, which is always an advantage (you may learn something, too!).

Here are some suggestions for setting up a
successful evening ember:

  • Have everyone sit in a circle. That way everyone can see and hear everyone else.

  • Set some ground rules. These should include the following—no yelling, no personal attacks, no interrupting, respecting others feelings, don’t offer problems without some idea for a solution, and anything else you feel is necessary to promote open conversation. Make sure that your campers know that everything discussed during evening embers stays within the group (make it a “safe zone”).

  • Give everyone a chance to speak. Your campers aren’t required to speak if they don’t want to, but they have to pay attention and be respectful.

  • No time limit. You will never get in trouble if you are late for an activity because you were having a breakthrough cabin chat. Don’t let them go on forever, though.

  • Use props. Play a song and talk about it, or read a story, or talk about a picture. Have a special candle. Set the mood. Make friendship bracelets while doing the chat. Carve a talking stick. Use a quiet feather as the talking stick. Use your imagination.

    LISTEN! Your campers hear you all day. You’ll be shocked at what you can learn from your campers.

  • You are facilitating, not telling them what to think. Allow them to disagree with you and each other, but make sure they are civil when they do it (if they can do that, they’re doing better than most adults). Try going first or adding another story/point if things get stuck. Ask the question in another way. Allow people to pass.

  • Don’t be too serious. These chats should be a learning and growing experience, but they should also be fun (like everything else at camp).

  • Don’t lie to campers. If they ask you a question you don’t want to answer, you are under no obligation to answer. There are also some questions that you can’t personally answer (examples: have you ever had sex, have you ever done drugs, drinking, etc.). Always be a good role model.

    Instead of misleading them, tell them what they asked is a personal matter and you feel it would be inappropriate to answer. Then, tell them if they have other questions about _____ they should ask their parents when they go home.

    Follow up on this by telling the parent that their child had a question about whatever it was they asked about when the parent comes to pick them up at the end of the session. The parent will love you forever if you do.

    Submitted by Randall Grayson, PhD. Randy is the camp director at Camp Augusta, and a well known presenter at camping conferences nationwide. Dr. Grayson has written a several books, including his most recent - Magnificent Camp Staff Motivation. For more information, visit Dr. Grayson's web site.
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